Jan 25, 2010

Is Getting Into College Harder Than It Was a Decade Ago?

The numbers are overwhelming. Colleges are breaking all application records—sometimes by as much as 42 percent, as in the case of the University of Chicago. But is it really that much more difficult for most students to get into college today than it was a decade ago?

Apparently not, according to a report released by The Center for Public Education, an initiative of the National Schools Board Association. In Chasing the College Acceptance Letter, the Center investigates the chances of an average student getting accepted to a competitive four-year college and found

• Average high school students expecting to go to college earn an overall GPA of 3.1, score 21 on the ACT (SAT equivalent of 980-1010), and pass math and science classes up through Trigonometry and Chemistry.
• Shrinking acceptance rates cited in so many news reports come from a higher number of applications submitted per student.
• The average college applicant today has about the same chance of getting into a “competitive” college as an average applicant a decade ago.
• Having the “right” credentials to get into college is less about posting all A’s, and more about earning “decent” grades, taking college-preparatory courses, and performing well on college entrance exams.
• Taking more rigorous courses, especially in math and science, gives an applicant a better chance of getting into a competitive college than does raising his or her GPA.
• Well-prepared low-income applicants are less likely to get into a competitive college than well-prepared high-income applicants: 66 percent vs. 80 percent.

The report acknowledges that some colleges did get harder to get into, but the vast majority remained the same or even easier. In fact, the rapidly-increasing number of college applications submitted per high school student, as facilitated by online systems, accounts only for an appearance of shrinking acceptances.

Although the number of high school graduates has been steadily increasing until this year, the number of open slots at colleges has gone up at nearly the same rate. Students sending out applications to far more colleges creates the illusion of more applicants, when in reality there are simply more applications.

But how does the average student improve his or her chances of admission? By taking more difficult courses. For example, the report found that average students could increase admissions odds from 69 to 79 percent if they completed Pre-calculus instead of stopping math at Algebra II. It would take a student raising his or her GPA from a 3.1 to a 3.6 to increase the chance of getting into college by this much.

Unfortunately, credential building doesn’t pay off as much for low-income students. Although minority students have a better chance of getting into competitive college than they did ten years ago, low-income college applicants went from having a 72 percent chance of getting admitted to just a 66 percent chance.

So the short answer is no, it’s not more difficult to get into a competitive college today than it was a decade ago. That is, unless you happen to come from a low-income family.


  1. It's not more difficult to get into a competitive college today, but it's MUCH more difficult to pay for it, as the cost has greatly exceeded the rate of inflation. I am one senior parent who is spending as much time researching cost of attendance as I am admission standards.

  2. You're so right! Too many families focus on the competitiveness of admissions without adequately researching ability to pay. While financial aid programs, scholarships, tuition "discounts," and residency benefits certainly help, there's no escaping the reality that cost is becoming more of a driving factor in the process of deciding where families can send their children to college.

  3. I've been nearly frantic during my son's first 2 years of high school because of some of the literature that came home from school listing the average GPA's of incoming freshmen at Virginia Colleges. My son is a sophomore taking AP classes and has a 3.4 GPA. Based on this literature, he'd not be accepted at many of Virginia's top colleges. Should I relax or get a tutor?